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Last week, I went into New York for a 30-minute chat with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the young documentary filmmaking team responsible for several of the most acclaimed docs of the 21st century: The Boys of Baraka (2005), which follows inner-city American schoolchildren who wind up at a boarding school in Kenya; Jesus Camp (2006), which is about the instructors and kids at a summer camp for Evangelical children and was nominated for the best documentary feature Oscar; Freakonomics (2010), which is an adaptation of the popular book of the same title about human behavior; 12th and Delaware (2010), which observes a street corner in Florida on which a crisis pregnancy center and abortion clinic are situated across from each other and for which the duo won a Peabody Award; and now Detropia (2012), which examines the Great Recession’s causes and effects on the city of Detroit and will go into limited release Sept. 7.
Ewing and Grady met in 1997 when a filmmaker who had hired them separately paired them together to work on a project for A&E about the Church of Scientology. They discovered not only a similar creative sensibility but also a similar outlook and sense of humor. Taking a leap of faith, they decided to form a production company, Loki Films — Loki is the name of Thor’s brother, the Norse god of mischief, but they took the name from the child of one of Grady’s friends — and set out on their own. Fifteen years and four offices later, Ewing says, “We’ve really grown together as a team, and it’s been a really fruitful collaboration.”
Their films are defined by their even-handed and engrossing depictions of controversial issues and complex people, often in places far from their own lives and experiences. As Ewing puts it, “Neither of us really are ‘advocacy filmmakers.’ We really don’t go in with an agenda. We go in just because we want to find out about something. … We’re willing to let the story guide us.” Grady, meanwhile, credits their films’ subjects as “the heart of our movies.”
More than anything, they are asked about how two people direct one movie. Logistically, they explain, it’s quite simple: They come up with ideas and then go out onto locations together to establish whether the elements exist to form the foundation of a fascinating story. If they do, then they separately return and record different people. They then review each other’s footage in the editing room and begin the process of weeding dozens of hours of footage into a finished product of roughly 90 minutes.
Despite their success, they, like virtually all doc filmmakers, don’t earn enough from their films to cover all of their bills, so they take on other work in between projects. (Interestingly and inconveniently, their rise to prominence coincided almost exactly with the collapse of the economy and, in tandem with that, financing for doc films.) Ewing says, “We keep a strong foot in television — in nonfiction television,” and Grady notes, “We have three TV projects now” — an ESPN “Nine for IV” segment, a short film for Standup to Cancer and something for MTV — plus one for HBO that they wrapped the night before we met, but that is still mapped out on index cards on their office wall, about Islamophobia within the Muslim community in the years after 9/11.
Right now, though, they hope to keep their hot streak alive with Detropia, a film that couldn’t be more timely and that also hits very close to home for Ewing, literally — she was born in the Motor City. After raising money for the film in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival, where they were premiering 12th and Delaware, they rented an apartment in Detroit and began traveling back and forth from their base in New York, capturing bits of pieces of “a moment of time, of a moment of national anxiety about the shrinking of the middle-class,” as Ewing puts it. They do so by documenting the experiences and sentiments of a wide range of locals, the most memorable of whom are the longtime head of a struggling auto union, a young blogger who documents Detroit’s abandoned properties and a retired schoolteacher-turned-bartender.
These plucky people — people who remember how things were before they got bad and who insist that they will stick around no matter how many street lights, emergency responders or other civil services are cut — make for a film that is entertaining, but, of course, still without an ending. Ewing explains: “We had to stop ourselves, because we could just be filming in Detroit for the next seven or eight years. Things are changing every day. We were aware of that. It was hard to tear ourselves away — it was really hard to tear ourselves away on this one.”
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